Alright. Where to begin. I've done a lot since my last big newsletter so settle in, put on a pot of coffee, make a sandwich or something, this could take a while.
When we last left our hero, he was spending his last night in Phnom Penh before a big trip to Laos. The last night in Cambodia was really great. We went to an area called 'lakeside' which is supposed to be the big center for backpackers. It was pretty much a windy dirt path with bars and little restaurants packed in on its sides. We went to a nice place that had delicious Indian food and Wii bowling. After that we wanted to go to a place on the lake and we found a guesthouse (cheaper hotel) that had a little dock floating out. There was a little ladder where you could climb to a second level that had some rugs and short tables. It was a beautiful night. My favorite part was the Cambodian children. There were a couple kids (9-10 yrs) walking around and selling books. They were all really smart and spoke English very well. Some of them were sharp as a tack. One of them hung out with us for a while and chatted with us. His name was John (Jahn?) and he was selling these books all on his own to try and fund his education. He might've been putting us on but it seemed legit. He was also great at Wii bowling (got me a strike!). I bought a lonely planet guide to Laos from him before we left. Ideally, I would like to wind up teaching those kids somewhere.
The next morning we had to pack up and head to the airport. We parted ways with the guys from the Viet Nam and Cambodia groups and took off. The plan was to go back to Pattaya for a night and then catch the next day's overnight train to Laos. My return to Pattaya was not unlike my first visit. We got in late and I went straight to bed. We had a little time the next day so we went exploring. We went down to the big shopping center where I picked up a new pair of shorts. There wasn't enough time to do laundry (everything's gotta air dry) and I was in need. We left for Bangkok early afternoon. At that point I had spent about as much time traveling to and from Pattaya as I had actually walking around in it (It's about a 1.5 to 3 hr trip depending on traffic and cig breaks for the driver.)
The midnight train was a lot of fun. The sides of the cars were lined with small tables and one-person benches that would fold down into a bed with another bed appearing from a compartment overhead. It took a while but we went with some of the students from the previous crop of Languagecorps students so it was nice to have plenty of time to get to know them. I was stuck with a top bunk which was kinda difficult to get in and out of but alright. I did, however, need to sleep with my feet sticking out to the side and kinda in a luggage rack. Being tall hasn't been as difficult as I thought it would be but there are certainly times...
We got off in Nong Khai to go through customs and immigration, and to get new Lao visas. Every time you cross the border you have to get a stamp and a new giant visa that takes up an entire page of your passport. I'm kinda worried that mine might fill up and I'll have to get another that doesn't have all my cool journeys documented. Does anyone know if you're allowed to keep your old one? Once we were through with Thai emigration, we drove about five minutes down the 'Friendship Bridge' to get to Laos and go through it all again. After that we all got in a van and headed for Vientiane.
We unpacked our bags and settled into our hotel. It was about half a block from the main drag which ran along the Mekong and was packed with market action. It was the closest I've come to a genuine bazaar. We really hit Laos at the perfect time because they were in the middle if one of their biggest holidays of the year (actually so was Cambodia!). The festival included some much celebrated boat races that featured roughly sixty people sitting 2-abreast in a giant canoe. The festival also meant extra craziness in the market. There were carnival rides. Me and my friend went on the kiddie coaster that was similar to the ones in the states except that instead of a dragon head on the front car, it was a mouse with a sombrero (?).
We also went for a quick ride in a ferris wheel. Or so we thought. It ended up lasting about half an hour despite our cries. It got to the point where it was so absurd that I had to laugh. First of all, the little carriage was so small that I could barely fit in by myself let alone with my friend. Every time we got to the top there was a beautiful view of the Mekong river and all the little shops on the street below. Every time we got to the bottom there was a hilarious scene to behold. First, there were the guys pouring gas from a giant bucket into the engine as it ran. Later we saw a guy kneeling down holding two box wrenches and looking very puzzled as he studied a key component of the obviously loosening mechanism while a guy stood behind him pointing here and there till he turned and left (3rd wrench?). Then later we came down to see that everyone was gone and there was a plastic bag looped over the lever to regulate our speed. The operators were great and had clearly been at it a long time. the ground around them was littered with empty bottles of M-150 which is pretty much Red Bull. Interesting fact: Red Bull originated in Thailand and the stuff they sell here is about 5 times as powerful as the stuff in the states and about 0 times as regulated. That night we went out to a bar on a rooftop overlooking the river that had some good food and an even pool table.
The next day we had to pack up all our stuff again. This is the point where I should have learned not to unpack everything when we get somewhere. Our next destination would be a small town called Vang Viene. It's a really small town that is developing into a spot for eco-tourism which is really nice. Someone said something about there being a movie based on the town called 'Air America'. Originally it was just an airstrip that the US built there during Viet Nam but it has since grew a little. The road between the two towns is about three hours with some incredible views with its winding roads through the mountains. Laos gave me another Reality Check Moment where I had to stop and realize that I was actually there, doing the things I was doing. It was absolutely beautiful and I briefly considered staying.
The city was very small but it catered to its eco-tourists. There were small islands in the middle of the river that had their own bars and rickety bridges. There were little bungalows with hammocks in them and also some other hammockless ones closer to the water. As we were leaving I saw an elderly woman carrying two five-gallon buckets down to the water where she put the in one of those super long skinny boats. I saw boats from the bridge on my way over the first time but at the time they just seemed like they were props or something in some Disneyland Laos re-creation. That was another RCM.
The next day was our big excursion of kayaking and caving down the Namsong river. We all got into two person kayaks and shoved off. There were long periods of lazy floating but every now and then there would be some rapids that would always cause someone to tip. We only tipped once and I was kinda glad because I would've felt like I didn't get the full experience if I didn't fall in at least once. We made several stops along the way. Our first was at the Elephant Cave which has a giant Buddha in it. It's called the Elephant Cave because there's a stalactite (gmite?) that looks a lot like an elephant, sorta. Another stop of ours was an organic mulberry farm which was pretty neat because all the proceeds went to fund the school in town. When kayaking/tubing in the Nangsong, you can either do a full day or half day trip. We did the full day but after lunch we caught up to where the half dayers were. The river became more touristy with several shoreline bars. Some of them had rope swings and water slides where you could swing out and plunge into the deeper parts. Of course I did. Our last stop was really cool, it was a giant cave where we swam through parts of it and the rest we had to walk on muddy, slippery rocks. We all lit teeny candles to see and once we got way deep inside we blew them out and sat in the darkness. It was really cool. When we left the cave the guide climbed up a pomelo tree (like a sweeter grapefruit) and shook the branch so a bunch all rained down. They were actually very tasty and better than the ones I'd bought on the street. We were almost done and we got to watch the sun sinking in between the mountains.
One of the major parts of the ongoing festival was a ritual where everyone in town buys little boats made of banana leaves and flowers with candles and sparklers on them. Everyone lights theirs and lets all their bad luck just float down the river. It was really cool to wade out and let one go as other people's passed gently by me.
We woke up really early the next day to go back to Vientiene. We had already decided we would make it back to Vang Viene soon. The festival was really in full swing by the time we got back and this was the day of the actual boat races. I watched a couple including a really close one which got everyone excited. Before the races they would have little barges float by singing songs about beer or bird flu awareness. Some were pretty catchy. After a couple races I decided to go back to the hotel for some much needed napping. By this point, I had seen every shop in the bazaar and the crowds, smells, and dust were getting to be a bit much.
We were set to leave the next day but before we did we went to Buddha Park which was way cool. There were tons and tons of statues all over this big field. One was a giant 3-story pot with a tree on top. You could go inside and work your way up around the edges. The inner parts of the pot had rooms that were full of smaller statues. There was one in the basement that kinda creeped me out because there was only one dim bulb and all the statues were of monsters killing people. The ones outside were really neat though and a lot of them were pretty silly.
Our train ride home was even better than the one on the way up. We made friends with some Japanese who were living in Bangkok. We hung out in the bar car which was neat because it was the only one with open windows. They played the same 11 songs on a loop for about 2 hours but I didn't mind because they were some of my favorites and they sounded even better as we roared through the countryside on another hot October night.
Don't worry, we're almost done. I just have one more weekend and we're all caught up.
One of the girls who went with us to Laos had already gotten a job in Bangkok and she thought it would be a great idea if we all went up to visit. We chartered another van and a few of us headed up for the weekend. We got in sorta late and after we checked in to the hotel we went out to get some lunch. We decided that Chinatown sounded good and we were faced with two options. We could either take the skytrain to the metro to a tuktuk to a river boat, or we could just take a cab. The cab was cheaper and we assumed shorter. Traffic is always terrible. There's tons of long waits at lights that stay red for over 2 minutes and the public transit (skytrain and metro) only covers about a quarter of the city. Let me just say that the skytrain was throughly impressive but I think my expectations were just too high. Well our cab driver brought us to Chinatown but by then we decided we wanted to eat on the river, so we drove through it up to the river side. Our driver then got out, asked someone on the street, then got back in and drove us out of Chinatown to a restaurant that was literally 'on' the river. It was alright though because from there we walked to an Indian restaurant that was so so good. We were all stuffed which worked out because it was already 5. That night we went out to a blues bar that my friend had found earlier. It was awesome. The lead singer was an old white guy in his 60's and the lead guitarist was a 13 year old Thai kid. Very cool. We spent a long time there but eventually made it out to other places. They were good but not as good.
The next morning we all went out looking for apartments with the girl who was staying. We went to a few that were all really nice but some were too much or too far or two small or whatever. There was one that had a pool on its fifth floor which I thought was particularly righteous but it was the most expensive of all and kind of a hike from the metro. We were all dog tired by the end of it and the three of us who were returning took a slow bus back to pattaya.
This post actually has taken me two days to complete but I have too much work to do to go into detail about today. I start teaching for real tomorrow and I need to get some things done. I'll have all the details on my first day, as well as my tales from Monday soon.